The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) logo is a life preserver. I think the idea is that the organization brings people together who want to preserve life and prevent suicide. For those of us who have tried to help a loved one who has to navigate life with a mental illness, the idea that you, personally, are a life preserver for someone else is likely not part of your thought process. At least it wasn’t for me. Compassionate listener, mood tracker, financial supporter, worrier extraordinaire – those are the roles I filled as my dad fiercely battled bipolar disorder. But life preserver, no way. It’s only in hindsight that I realize that’s exactly what I was. And it wasn’t just me. My dad’s brother, my mom, a few close friends. They were my dad’s life preservers too. Maybe if we had realized how critical our roles were for my dad’s survival, he would still be here.
In the three months since my dad’s death by suicide, I’ve done a lot of reading about mental illness, bipolar disorder, depression, and suicide. One of the ideas that has stuck with me is that those who acknowledge that they have a mental illness, that they need help, and that even when they are symptom free they are not “cured” and will likely experience more manic and depressive episodes in the future are people who are less likely to die by suicide. The take away for me is that if you are managing life with a mental illness, tell your loved ones that they are your life preservers. If you are suicidal, tell someone. Don’t drop hints or hope that one of your life preservers somehow knows your unspoken thoughts. Life preservers, if you are worried that your loved one is suicidal, ask them. Ask them compassionately, but directly. Be prepared for the answer, take them seriously, and have a plan.
Obviously, this is so much easier said than done. My dad and I both struggled with our roles. I didn’t ask because I was scared and he didn’t tell for reasons I’ll never know. Be brave enough to ask for a life preserver when you need one and realize how essential your role is when you are asked.